Gardens and Language — What’s the Missing Link?

Garden sculpture at Little Sparta, designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay

I’m always fascinated by the ways that garden design intersects with other art forms.  The connection between gardens and painting is obvious and intuitive, and has a long history in garden design.  After all, English landscape “improvers” like Capability Brown were really attempting to create idealized landscapes common in paintings by the likes of Poussin and Lorraine.

The vistas at Stourhead were created in the same spirit as paintings of idealized landscapes by Renaissance artists.

Gertrude Jekyll was a painter before she became a garden designer and her borders are often said to be composed with a painter’s eye.  And most of us are familiar with Monet’s garden at Giverny, which he called his “most beautiful masterpiece.”

Thanks to its three dimensional nature, sculpture, too, is a natural partner of garden design, and sculpture and statuary have been features of garden design since its beginnings.

One art form that we don’t often find incorporated into garden design these days is language.  Poetry.  I’m not talking about the cute little signs you can buy at the garden center that say stuff like “So many weeds, so little thyme.”  No, I mean language fused intentionally and thoughtfully with other components of a garden by the designer.  I mean language that is integral to a design rather than just thrown in as an afterthought.

The Chinese were good at this.  They liked poetry in their gardens, and not just in the form of cute puns.  Descriptive signs and inscribed couplets are found all over ancient Chinese scholar gardens.  Rather than just labeling parts of the garden with something straightforward like “Meditation Garden” or “Woods Path,” Chinese scholars were meticulous in selecting just the right morally and aesthetically pleasing name.  Check these out these descriptors:

The Gorge of Dripping Verdure

The Grotto of Secret Clouds

The Wind of Autumn over the Ocean of the World

The inscription over this moongate says "Read the painting; Listen to the fragrance."

Maybe a little over the top, but you’ve got to appreciate their passion for language and their desire to capture the spirit of the garden in words.  We certainly don’t try that hard.

In addition to signs and names, Chinese strolling gardens often featured couplets written on vertical panels to resemble scrolls of calligraphy.  Maggie Keswick, in The Chinese Garden, said that these couplets aimed for “just the right mixture of tradition and metaphor” and offered this example from The Drunkard’s Pavillion:

“Three pole-thrust lengths of bankside willows green,
one fragrant breath of bankside flowers sweet.”

Not bad.  Ten syllables each line, sweet rhythm, Shakespeare would give it a thumbs up.  Actually, what interests me more is the idea of having a “Drunkard’s Pavilion” in the first place.  Seems there was a place in the garden for all manner of folk back in ancient China.

Couplets were also added to Chinese gardens by groups of visiting literati, who would stroll around and comment on all of the garden’s surprising and artful features.  Polished rocks and other surfaces were left clear so that visitors could inscribe their impressions and emotions, and these bits of poetic commentary were thought to lend richness and erudition to the garden.  Keswick notes:

“In China a garden is often compared to a piece of landscape art, and the inscriptions in a garden are perfectly analagous to the colophons in a painting.”

Chinese landscape painting with colophons

I haven’t done exhaustive research or anything, but it seems to me that language and poetry is nearly absent from western garden design.  With the exception of Biblical and literary quotes in cemeteries and memorials, I really cannot think of any well-known gardens that integrate the written word with other elements of landcape design.

Of course, there is Ian Hamilton Finlay.  This Scottish poet and sculptor, who passed away in 2006, mixed up language and landscape in a most intriguing way.  On an abandoned farm in the hills near Edinburgh, Finlay created a landscape infused with language.  A visitor to this landscape — which Finlay named Little Sparta — will encounter words and phrases at every turn.  The inscriptions appear in all manner of objects: rocks, plaques, urns, bridges, statuary, etc. and may be subtle or (as in the photo below) quite assertive.

What exactly Finlay was up to with his landscape art I cannot say.  This website for Wild Hawthorn Press, which publishes art books about Finlay, states that “Little Sparta is a deliberate correction of the modern sculpture garden through its maker’s revisiting the Neoclassical tradition of the garden as a place provocative of poetic, philosophic and even political thought.”

While you’re chewing on that, here’s another piece of (would you call it sculpture?) from Little Sparta:

“A cottage, a field, a plow.”  The inscription makes me think of Scottish crofters, the small, self-sufficient farmers who were driven off their land by the English during the Highland Clearances.  The sequence of three singular nouns has a nice rhythm — ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum — iambs I believe.  The language complements the simple, home-spun wooden gate.  Gorgeous.  The whole vignette — the gate, the poetry, the sense of anticipation created for the visitor — is certainly reminiscent of the thresholds in ancient Chinese scholar gardens.  See:

Chinese moon gate at botanical garden on Staten Island.

I wish there were more designers who melded language and gardens together, because I think each art form has great potential to elevate the other.  I’ve even thought about ways to incorporate snippets of poetry into my own garden — I’m not sure I can pull this off without seeming outrageously pretentious, but hey, I’m 40 now so who really cares?

John Dixon Hunt, garden historian and professor at Penn State, said that “the ideal gardener is a poet.”  The Chinese seemed to understand this.  Finlay, too.  Why don’t the rest of us?

18 thoughts on “Gardens and Language — What’s the Missing Link?

  1. Beautifully crafted post!
    In our culture, physically combining gardening and poetry diminishes the value of each, as they compete for our consideration. Perhaps, if more of us were into meditation, we would better appreciate the melding of the two arts.

    • Thank you, Allan! I am surprised by your comment, though, about how gardening and language would diminish one another’s value if they were combined. Americans were smart enough to figure out that chocolate and peanut butter taste great together…maybe this could grow on us, too.

  2. Mary,

    Wonderful post! Is there any subject you don’t know something about? I of course am a sucker for language and poetry and combining them with landscapes is positively brilliant! Thank you for this discussion.

    In other news, I am featuring a different local writer each Wednesday in my blog (Biscuit City) and would like for you to be local writer of the week in two weeks. Are you game? I can write the post from what I know about you and what’s on FB and from your blog. Please email me at And say “yes!” Thanks!

  3. Poetry is not a part of our lives in any sphere, not just gardening, the way it was in a time when there were few outlets for expression. So it’s not surprising it hasn’t enriched gardens the way earlier cultures used it. You bring up some thoughtful ideas in this post. But if meditative language and beautiful poetry aren’t part of our shared communication, then they seem stilted and self conscious if we use inscribed stones and wordy sculptures in the garden. It all seems antiquated, which in fact it is! Beautiful, evocative, and of another time.

    • Laurrie, I’m not sure I agree that poetry is no longer present in our lives — maybe not sonnets anymore, but certainly we’re exposed to poetic language as we go about our day…in music, literature, etc. I don’t think inscriptions would necessarily seem stilted and antiquated, either. I refuse to believe that poetry is dead! :o)

  4. Great post!

    One contemporary (1997) example of incorporating poetic language in the garden can be experienced in the Central Garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Engraved into two adjoining stones set into the path are the words:

    “Ever Present Never Twice The Same” / “Ever Changing Never Less Than Whole”

    For me, those words effectively calibrated my mindset to more calmly and deeply experience the garden. I think it was especially helpful, given the massive amount of art I had just viewed in the Center, and the large crowds of people teeming about.

    It might be telling that the garden’s designer was Robert Irwin, who began his artistic career as a painter, then moved into “site-determined” installation art and landscape design.

    Thanks for putting this out there for our consideration.

    • Thanks, James! Wow, that inscription you mention sounds JUST like the Chinese couplet I mentioned in my post…definitely in the same spirit anyway. I love it! The Getty Center is definitely on my bucket list.

  5. Thought you might be interested in checking out some of San-Francisco-based Topher Delaney’s work – she uses poems in many of her residential designs, incorporating them in ways that are meaningful for the homeowners, and for one blind client’s garden, in braille on the path. It’s gorgeous, personal stuff. Interestingly enough, she started out as an artist too!

  6. This is intense, but makes sense…will have to re-read this post. Like naming gardens, I wonder why I never connected writing and gardens, since I effortlessly connect music and place / scenery, or music and food. That music doesn’t have to have lyrics, as it can be instrumental…but it has to have a mood.

    You have me thinking instead of laughing…

    • Speaking of music and place, I’m reminded of the garden in Toronto by Julie Messervy, I think it was, that was completely inspired by a piece of music. I believe she worked with Yo Yo Ma on the project. Pretty cool!

  7. This was so interesting. It brought to mind many things.

    A poem is a distillation of experience (see particularly Emily Dickinson) and a great garden can be a
    distillation of the physical world (mostly natural) around us. Perhaps this is perhaps why a poet would make the best gardener. Although I don’t really think the transfer of skills is that direct.

    “A cottage. A field. A plow.” is when a landscape changes to a garden (or nature changes to manipulated landscape).

    I thought of this exchange from the movie Bright Star when I was reading your post:

    Fanny Brawne: I still don’t know how to work out a poem.
    John Keats: A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.*
    Fanny Brawne: I love mystery.

    A great garden is the same, which is why there really isn’t an explanation for Little Sparta. And why, to me, the Chinese garden poems so often ring a little trite.

    *I haven’t been able to find any direct link to this line and something Keats actually wrote unfortunately.

    • Wow, Cindy, what a great response. Your observations — especially your point about “distillation” — is right on. And I looooove that line by Keats about poetry. I’ve never heard of that film but now am going to have to check it out! Thank you again!

  8. When I first read this post I wanted to say, “But it should (underline should) be possible to use poetry effectively in the garden without being pretentious.” But I haven’t found good examples–other than your choice of Ian Hamilton Finley or poetry from other languages (especially Latin, but most any non-English language would do for me). I love cemeteries, and tend to think of most cemeteries as gardens, and poetry certainly seems appropriate there, and works just fine. It can be used very effectively on memorials, where we’ve learned to expect it. I think the problem here lies in the nature of our culture and our cultural expectations, which can change over time (I hope). To make it work these days, I think you have to find an absolutely perfect match, or use the distancing of a foreign language. Then there’s the spoken word. What of sounds in the garden, the spoken word, as well as other sounds, perhaps unexpected sounds? (I ramble.)

    • Ramble away, James. Your point about cultural expectations is exactly right. We’re not conditioned to expect poetic inscriptions in “mainstream” American gardens (whatever those are) so they might seem snobby or weird or irritating. Then again, traditions do have to begin somewhere, right?

  9. It seems to me that poetry allows us to imagine, view, experience, understand our own multi-faceted worlds which, left to ourselves, remain veiled and latent. Isn’t this why we are gardeners/designers/interpreters? because our poetry is composed with space, plants, shade/light, water, air, night, colour, birds, little feet, architecture – these are our words and what remains veiled and latent for our clients is awakened when they experience the invisible intimacy of their gardens.
    Doesn’t over informing our clients with words underestimate their capacity for poetry?

  10. (I swear I’m not going to leave a comment on every single post you ever made.) I wonder how much our modern nomadic lives discourage this poetry of the garden. One might argue that most people these days (well, in the U.S.) rarely settle down for years in a single home or garden, but instead move from city to city, house to house, never truly putting down roots. Reading your post, it struck me that I’d like to figure out a way to include poetry or some other meaningful language into MY garden. Mulch Boy and I bought our little house 5 years ago and we definitely intend to stay put, barring any unexpected preventive events. I think we took the first step when we named our house (The Little Blue House) (I didn’t say it was terribly creative). Right now we’re in the end stages of building our own dry creek bed, and we’re puzzling over what name to give it–the River Kwai? The Brandywine? We haven’t decided yet. But I think this naming, and this inclusion of language you talk of, speaks to the intimacy between garden and gardeners. As a purely decorative notion, I agree that poems in the garden may be judged harshly as pretentious. As an expression of your own personal feelings about or relationship with nature, they… would probably still be judged pretentious by many. But in that case, you probably won’t care because it’s not about other people’s opinions. It’s your truth. (Oh lord, talk about sounding pretentious!) 🙂

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